The Quiet Man of Zenith: Zenith’s Derrick Southon would rather shun the limelight, yet in his 38-year career he has shaped the UK media arena. Dominic Mills discovers the unassuming man behind the illustrious reputation

As I arrive at his offices on a dank, grey Thursday to interview Derrick Southon, chief executive of Zenith Europe, I am, I confess, a little apprehensive. On one hand, I am 15 minutes early, having travelled round to Paddington on the Hammersmith and City tube line. Of this Southon is bound to approve, I am sure, given his reputation as a man who not only knows that there is such a thing as a tube timetable, but knows it backwards. On the other hand, I have never met Southon and have been appraised of his fearsome negotiating skills. I have also been warned of his legendary capacity for detail. Perhaps, I fear, he will pick me up on an erroneous point or, worse, attempt to negotiate over copy approval or even the headline.

As I arrive at his offices on a dank, grey Thursday to interview

Derrick Southon, chief executive of Zenith Europe, I am, I confess, a

little apprehensive. On one hand, I am 15 minutes early, having

travelled round to Paddington on the Hammersmith and City tube line. Of

this Southon is bound to approve, I am sure, given his reputation as a

man who not only knows that there is such a thing as a tube timetable,

but knows it backwards. On the other hand, I have never met Southon and

have been appraised of his fearsome negotiating skills. I have also been

warned of his legendary capacity for detail. Perhaps, I fear, he will

pick me up on an erroneous point or, worse, attempt to negotiate over

copy approval or even the headline.



My fears are groundless. Southon collects me from reception himself and

carries my coffee upstairs to his office, which overlooks Paddington

station. Meticulously neat, it is entirely bare apart from a collection

of trade magazines on his desk and, on one wall, a Terence Cuneo print

of a steam train. At first you think it offers no clue to the inner man.

In fact, it tells you everything - not that he has no personal

’hinterland’ (clearly he does) - that he possesses a clean, clear mind,

a relentless focus on the job and, of course, a view of trains.



Southon warns me that the sofa is a bit too squashy to write in

comfortably and asks if I would prefer to sit on a hard chair. An

avuncular man, once memorably described as Mr Chips, he is graciousness

and charm itself.



Indeed, the idea of Southon the schoolmaster is an appropriate one. The

current teacher recruitment TV campaign, in which celebrities are asked

to name the teacher who most inspired them, could be about him. Southon

inspires considerable respect and affection in the many media and

advertising luminaries who were once his ’pupils’



in the famed Benton & Bowles media department during the 70s and

80s.



Richard Eyre, Phil Georgiadis, Jerry Fielder, Paul Taylor, Tony Kenyon,

Simon Marquis, David Byles - the names make quite a roll call. And then

there is Christine Walker, of all his stars the one perhaps most cast

from the same professional mould.



’None of us would have been as good as we are,’ Fielder, now chairman of

Leagas Delaney, admits, ’if Derrick hadn’t been there. There isn’t a

person who’s worked for him who doesn’t have the most extraordinary

respect for him. Of course, he’s as mad as a hatter.’



Certainly, fondly recounted by those who know him well, the stories well

illustrate Southon’s foibles and strengths: the man whose mum made his

suits for him; the times he insisted on going to important meetings by

bus; his penchant for choosing an empty barber’s shop to get his hair

cut at a discount; the occasion when he saw a newspaper billboard which

read ’256 dead in plane crash’ and rushed back to the office to buy up

cancelled television airtime at a cut price; ringing staff on Christmas

Day to ask them why they had bought certain spots; the infinite patience

and the thick skin that has seen him grind media owners down; and the

occasion when Roy Jeans, then press director, on asking what his reward

was for bringing in a big piece of business, was bluntly told ’continued

employment’.



Nevertheless, Kenyon, managing director of the CIA Group’s Negotiation

Centre, says: ’His legacy is writ large in the way media is conducted

today. If you look at every development, Derrick has been a force in it

in some way. But I can’t think of anyone who has achieved as much

without the same profile.’



It is precisely to explore this legacy that Southon has agreed to be

interviewed. This is a rare, not to say unique, occurrence. For it is a

remarkable fact that he has only ever been profiled once (in Campaign in

1988 at the height of the Zenith furore) - and that was done without

actually talking to him. This state of affairs is entirely of Southon’s

making. A naturally reticent man, he has always shunned the limelight

and separated his personal life from his work. Indeed, many of his

former colleagues know nothing of his private life (he’s been married

for 31 years to Ann, a former designer for Marks & Spencer) or what he

did before B&B. ’You’ve finally nobbled me,’ he concedes.



However, aged 55, Southon retires from Zenith this month (barring a few

days a month until March) and when he goes, he makes it clear, he really

will leave the media world behind him. ’I will be in some kind of

business,’ he says, ’but I’m not going to hang around as a consultant.’

It is a decision, one suspects, entirely in character with a man who

doesn’t play the game, abhors the politics that can poison talent and

destroy organisations, and whose career has been characterised by his

unswerving loyalty to his staff and his employers.



In a career that spans 38 years, Southon has been a player in the way

media buying in the UK has developed, lifting its profile and raising

its game. The rise of media dependants; the insistence on media value

for money; centralisations; the creation of pure station average price;

and, of course, the seismic shock that was the creation of Zenith - you

name it, he was intimately involved. At every stage, Fielder says,

’Derrick was the man who set the standard.’



The son of an adman who died when Southon was 14, his start was, well,

unpromising. He began his career in 1959 as a runner and odd-job man for

several TV contractors. Made redundant in 1962 and inspired by the

vision of Ursula Andress in Doctor No, he blew his redundancy money on a

holiday in Jamaica.



Once he teamed up with Ray Morgan at B&B, things began to move. ’In

those days,’ he remembers, ’media was one step up from the post room.’

With Morgan, Southon conceived the revolutionary B&B media department

graduate trainee policy. ’We consciously set out to raise the standard

of media by hiring the best people. I wasn’t a graduate myself but I

knew we had to hire good people, people who were better than I was.’

Which he did, inspiring respect and awe in equal measure in his

recruits. He was a hard taskmaster, of course, never more so than when

standing crane-like with one foot on the graduates’ desk and grilling

them remorselessly on their schedules. Yet the inexorable rise of

Southon’s recruits from trainees to luminaries is, one suspects, the

achievement that gives him most satisfaction.



One sadness is that he and Walker have fallen out, the result of

Zenith’s legal action against her last month.



Backed by a B&B management that regarded them highly - if not a little

nervously in view of their renegade reputation - Southon and Morgan

shook up the then staid world of media buying. First they went for, and

won, media-only business. Then, in 1979, they initiated and won the

first media centralisation - for General Foods - and in the process

created a new set of rules governing the relationship between media

planner/ buyers and creative shops. That, in turn, brought TV trading

issues to the fore, and Southon’s position as a big spender meant he

became a central figure in the way the market developed.



The mishandling of the merger that created DMB&B led to the wholesale

walkout of B&B’s media department to form Ray Morgan & Partners. Taking

huge salary cuts and putting their houses on the line, the partners

enjoyed three glorious years before selling out in 1988 to Saatchi &

Saatchi because, Southon says, ’it was obvious, even then, that we would

need a European network’. Nevertheless, Southon says, they were also

seduced by John Perriss’s blueprint for Zenith, of which RMP was to be

the building block and Morgan, Southon and Walker the three key

managers. Its early years were bloody and political in the extreme, and

Southon’s role in building Zenith and creating a culture that reshaped

media buying and selling will go down as his other great

achievement.



Not that he would claim this since, as befits a man with no pretensions

and no false modesty whatsoever, he is quick to praise others and

downplay his own contribution. ’I’m back of house. It suits me,’ he

says.



Self-effacing as ever, Southon nevertheless concedes that as he hands

the baton to the next generation, it has been a job well done. That, it

is clear, is epitaph enough for him.



Topics

Become a member of Campaign from just £46 a quarter

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.co.uk plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an Alert Now

Partner content

Share

1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).